Using Yoast SEO to Write Effective Meta Descriptions

The term, “meta description” may seem foreign to some but we all see these descriptions each time we search for something online. The meta description can contain up to 320 characters and should be an interesting summary of what your website is all about. It shows up in the search results as those first few words/lines that explain the essence of your website or post.

Yoast SEO Descriptions

How Meta Descriptions Work

Each time we type a search term in the browser, a number of results will come up. For each one, there’s a 320 character description of the site or page. People usually decide which site to click on based on what these meta descriptions say. That means it has to be snappy and fresh. The wording needs to grab your attention. It has to sound enticing. Think of it as a short, but powerful sales pitch. Potential customers are far more likely to visit a site that sounds unique, interesting or entertaining than one that sounds boring.

Though search engines make it clear that there’s no direct advantage from writing good meta descriptions, there is a very strong indirect benefit. If you’ve written a good meta description, then this will improve your click-through-rate (CTR). As visitors click-through to your site, the search engine uses that information as a way of determining that your site was aptly and well described. This will improve your position in the search results.

It is important to point out here that Google will not always show your unique meta description. Sometimes they generate their own description of your business based on factors like the search term and type of business it is. This is where keywords come into play. Most business owners now understand at least the basics of keywords and how they work. If your content is well-optimized, then it should reflect that by serving as a great meta description.

Google changes the way their search engine works at times and this can certainly throw a wrench in all your good plans. However, that should not stop business owners from doing sound keyword research and creating unique content with those keywords. It goes without saying that keyword stuffing is bad and should be avoided at all costs. Always observe the current standards for keyword density in a page of text, which usually runs around 2 to 2.5 percent.

Yoast Free or Premium?

Yoast offers a free and a premium SEO service. With the free service, you get one keyword for each page of content. The premium service allows five keywords for each page. The premium service also does a readability check using the Flesch Kincaid test which measures the grade level of your writing. Since the world wide web is filled with people from all backgrounds and educations, Flesch Kincaid usually recommends writing copy that would be easy reading for a third to fifth grader.

Use short concise sentences. Avoid big words that are not readily understood unless you are writing technical information for a specific audience, like IT experts. Try to use action verbs instead of passive verbs. Use subheadings and catchy taglines. Whatever you can do to make your site more attractive, unique and fun, will help. You can count on getting more traffic and higher conversion rates.

How to Use Yoast SEO to Write Meta Descriptions

If you don’t write a unique meta description, Yoast will produce one. Usually, it simply takes the first three lines of content on your page or post and uses that. If you’d like to edit that, then click on the “edit snippet” button. This opens the snippet editor. There are fields there to edit the SEO title, slug and meta description. As you type, your new meta description will show up. You can make changes until you feel it’s just right. The snippet editor has an orange bar at the bottom that will become green once you’ve typed enough information.

Many site owners use the first few lines of content on their page or post as the meta description. If your site has good, professionally written content on it, then there’s nothing wrong with that. However, if you feel you could improve the text, then, by all means, do so. If you can get the hang of this and really write powerful meta descriptions, it can greatly improve your click-through rates.

How to Write a Superb Meta Description

Once you’ve decided that this is something worthwhile that could improve your bottom line, it’s important to put your best foot forward. In order to write effective meta descriptions, you may need the help of a good copywriter. Copywriting is all about utilizing words to persuade searchers to click on your page. With only 320 characters or about two to three lines of text, it’s important to make every word count. Below are two writing examples to show you the difference between professionally written text and that of an amateur.

Good Meta Description:

Apple

https://www.apple.com/

Discover the innovative world of Apple and shop everything iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, Mac, and AppleTV, plus explore accessories, entertainment, and expert device support.

The above meta description from Apple does contain some good keywords but it doesn’t feel awkward or forced. It’s informative. It’s also important to note that this meta description was written using the older rules where 155 characters were the rule. Today, we’re seeing longer snippets that contain more information to help searchers decide what to click on.

Bad Meta Description:

Mary’s Bakery

https://www.marysbakery.com/

Get some good donuts and cakes at Mary’s Bakery located in downtown Minneapolis. We cater and deliver. Our baked goods are tasty and made with quality ingredients.

Though the above meta description does contain some valuable information, it’s boring. The shop owner wastes valuable space here to tell consumers where they’re located. This is something that many searchers will not care about in their initial search. Use this space to talk about delicious pastries, cakes, and donuts. Talk about your award-winning cupcakes with buttercream icing. This is how you get people to visit your site and look around.

Caution!

Be sure that your meta description accurately describes your page or post. Yes, the wording can be flowery, powerful, strangely attractive, etc. But it should also be truthful. If you make promises you can’t keep, then searchers will quickly hit the “back” button. This can cause your site to fall in the search listings.

As mentioned above, avoid keyword stuffing. Just about all web visitors today understand what keyword stuffing is and most don’t like it. The reason? Keyword stuffing makes a section of text read awkwardly. It is typically not well-written content and it doesn’t make sense to your human visitors. Remember to write your meta description for humans, not for search engines.

Instead, focus on writing interesting descriptions and unique content for your human visitors. In the end, search engines will not be purchasing your products and services. Humans will, so cater to their needs, wants, desires, whims—and you’ll be rewarded with higher click-through rates and stronger sales.

Is Your Greatest Asset Also Your Biggest Weakness? Trust Us, It Is.

Your most valuable asset has nothing to do with information or data you store, but rather within your human resources departments – which may also be your greatest weakness.

Weaknesses

Cybercriminals don’t sleep. Nope. In fact, it’s when we sleep that cybercriminals are the most active! There is a good stretch of time during which they can cause significant damage before we rise to start our day, much less notice. While the rest of us are sleeping, cybercriminals are like attendees at an all-night rave with glow-in-the-dark colors splashed about the otherwise-pitch-black room, in the form of paint, black lights, and glow sticks worn by the party goers. Loud music pumps up the energy well into the wee hours of the morning, until just before Average Joes rise at the sound of their alarm clocks to prep for the workday.

Unlike the revelers at the rave, cybercriminals – hackers – aren’t dancing the night away in black leather and copious amounts of hair gel, although we can’t guarantee their wardrobe or style choices. What we can guarantee is their activity: seeking a network with even the tiniest cybersecurity vulnerability which they plan to exploit to their every advantage. This is where your greatest asset comes in: human resources. These human resources are not the team members that oversee onboarding, payroll, benefits administration, or anything like that. We literally mean the resources on your staff that is human! The people that get the daily tasks done are an organization’s greatest asset, even more so than the most dedicated and loyal customers that spend the most money.

Think of these human resources like cheerleaders in a human pyramid: the company is only as strong as the weakest link. This group of individuals is the frontline of defense when it comes to a network’s cybersecurity, and no individual is foolproof. That’s the goal of any hacker, to find that one email address or Internet user that isn’t as solid on defense and wriggle inside with covert tactics.

Most professional organizations install some form, or multiple forms, of antivirus protection at the user-level, as just one of the methods to safeguard against cybersecurity vulnerabilities. End-user antivirus software has remained one of the most effective and reliable methods to protect against infiltration, but antivirus programs have three major faults:

  • Antivirus programs are only as “good” as the programmers that designed them.
  • Antivirus programs are only effective when installed and used properly by the end user.
  • Criminals don’t follow the rules.

That last part is the most important of everything you need to keep in mind for your cybersecurity needs. Hackers have their own set of rules, and those rules change faster than anyone can keep up – including antivirus software developers.

How does antivirus software work? Software installed to protect at the user level, known as endpoint protection, is design to detect and block a virus or malware from taking root on a user’s computer, or worse, accessing a network to which the user is connected. If a user encounters a threat, the antivirus software detects the threat and blocks it using a string of text – an algorithm – it recognizes as a known virus. The virus file tries to take one action or sequence of actions, known to the antivirus software, and the algorithm recognizes this behavior and prompts the user to take action against the suspicious behavior.

The threat landscape is evolving, and new viruses and threats are constantly emerging – faster than antivirus software programs can keep up. Increasing security challenges present ongoing opportunities to strengthen cybersecurity. Brand new viruses emerge and antivirus programs react with new updates to maintain optimal protection for the user’s computer or network. The problem is that the antivirus software industry is in a constant reactive state. Detecting in advance is more proactive, but it relies on predicting criminal behavior. The good news is some viruses behave similarly because of their design, and this helps antivirus programs detect “families” of viruses, including some newer versions.

The trouble is like we mentioned before, is that criminals don’t follow rules. Cybercriminals already know how antivirus software programs work, and the most effective means by which to ensnare a victim to gain access to a network. The number of new viruses being detected each year drastically decreases, which poses the question of whether fewer viruses are being created or antivirus software programs are less effective. It’s not a great position to be in, and a question no business owner ever wants to be forced to answer.

There are many arguments that claim virus detection software programs aren’t as effective in the last 12 months as compared to the previous time frame. Current overall detection rates for the last 12 months are averaging right near 70% of the time. Considering this number is nearly three out of every four instances where a threat is detected before it has the chance to impact a user or network, it’s not a terrible statistic, but it’s still incredibly scary. The potential damage a virus that slips through these cracks can cause is immeasurable.

  • Reports have shown the average number of professional emails received per day is near 125. Of these, about 75 are legitimate, which means that roughly half of all emails received are spam. These only represent the number of messages that clear security filters.

After digesting these scary numbers, consider an even scarier number: the IT budget for an organization. This is the number by which an organization’s ultimate cybersecurity strength is measured.

  • Do enough resources get allocated to training end users?
    • If your human resources – end users – are those responsible for not falling victim to a cyber-attack, help prevent them from being the weakest link that allows access to your network.
  • Does enough of the budget account for emerging cybersecurity needs?

Your human resources are your greatest asset, but only if properly armed with the right tools and knowledge to protect themselves, a network, and the organization for whom they work. The right cybersecurity awareness training and education can be the thin line between an organization’s success – and failure.

Orbitz Hack Compromises Nearly 1 Million Customers – Are You One Of Them?

Orbitz has disclosed that a recent data breach could have exposed extensive information of up to 880,000 of their customers.

Data Breach

It’s so often these days that hacks hit big-name companies that consumers are becoming numb to it. The latest to get hacked? Orbitz.

The travel booking company recently announced that they may have been hacked, possibly compromising the personal information of approximately 880,000 users. The breach could have included their date of birth, gender, and credit card info, exposing those using the platform between January and June of 2016, and October and December of 2017.

“We determined on March 1, 2018, that there was evidence suggesting that an attacker may have accessed personal information stored on this consumer and business partner platform,” said Orbitz in a statement. “We took immediate steps to investigate the incident and enhance security and monitoring of the affected platform. To date, we do not have direct evidence that this personal information was actually taken from the platform. We deeply regret the incident, and we are committed to doing everything we can to maintain the trust of our customers and partners.”

Whereas Orbitz is big enough to handle the damage control for an incident like this, what about you and your business? Cybercriminals are often just as likely to target small organizations as they are large ones, particularly because of the lack of cybersecurity measures.

Are you prepared to defend your business? If you’re not sure, keep these tips in mind:

Stay informed about phishing and spoofing techniques. Regular security awareness training should be a top priority for your organization.

Stop and think before you click a link. Don’t click on links from random emails or text messages. Hover your mouse arrow over a link to see who sent it. Most phishing emails begin with “Dear Customer”, so watch out for these. Verify the website’s phone number before placing any calls. Remember, a secure website always starts with “https”.

Never divulge personal information requested by email. Phishing attempts try to send you to a webpage to enter your financial or personal information. If you suspect this, give the company a call. Never send sensitive information in an email to anyone.

Be skeptical of messages that contain an urgent call to action:

  • With an immediate need to address a problem that requires you to verify information.
  • That urgently asks for your help.
  • Asking you to donate to a charitable cause.
  • Indicating you are a “Winner” in a lottery or other contest, or that you’ve inherited money from a deceased relative.

Consider installing an anti-phishing toolbar and security tools. Some Internet browsers offer free, anti-phishing toolbars that can run quick checks on the sites you visit. If a malicious site shows up, the toolbar will alert you.

Never download files from suspicious emails or websites. Double check the website URL for legitimacy by typing the actual address into your Web browser. Check the site’s security certificate. Also, beware of pop-ups as they may be phishing attempts.

Block pop-ups via your browser settings. You can allow them on a case-by-case basis if you decide to.

Most importantly? Be sure you’re working with a trusted, reliable cybersecurity service provider. We have the industry experience and expertise needed to keep you and your business secure against today’s cyber threats.

Big Changes For Google

If You Want to Be First on Google Searches, Be Sure to Employ Best Practices for Mobile-First Indexing

Google Changes

On March 26th, 2018, Google announced that after over 18 months of testing they will now begin migrating sites that follow best practices for their mobile-first indexing. This means that Google will now use the mobile version of content to index and rank all websites. Before now, they used the desktop version of a webpage’s content to evaluate how relevant it is to users’ Google searches.

NOTE: You won’t have to change anything if you have a responsive site or a dynamic serving site where the main content and markup is the same in both. However, if your site configurations are different on your mobile and desktop site, you should make some changes to your site. You can check the structured markup across your desktop and mobile versions by typing their URLs into the Structured Data Testing Tool and comparing them.

We’ve been getting a lot of questions about this, so we’re providing some answers for you below.

Why is Google doing this?

Today, most of us search on Google using our mobile devices. Yet, their ranking system is still based on the desktop versions of websites. This creates issues if the mobile pages contain less data than the desktop pages. In this case, the Google algorithms can’t properly evaluate the actual page that’s seen by the mobile device user.

So, to make their results more accurate, Google started experimenting with their index mobile first initiative. And now that it’s been launched, it will be the primary way Google will search for content, show snippets and rank pages.

How does this work?

Google’s Googlebots (or crawlers) search and index web pages. Crawlers are robots or spiders that automatically locate and read websites by “crawling” from one link to another.

Last summer (June 2017) Google advised website owners to switch their m-dot domains to “responsive” before the Mobile-First Indexing launch. If you didn’t do this, then Google will fully index your m-dot content and URLs. This means that the migration for your site will take longer than it should because Google will have to update the content on your pages.

If you have separate desktop and mobile content for your website, this means that you have a dynamic-serving or separate m-dot site specifically designed for mobile devices.

It’s good to have an m-dot site because you can use it to enhance the mobile experience on your site without compromising your desktop or mobile experience.

Ensure you follow Google’s best practices if you want your sites to rank well now with their mobile-first indexing.

Should our mobile content be different than our desktop content? No. It should be the same. And don’t limit it either. This could cause your ranking to decline. If your mobile site contains less content than your desktop site, it’s time to update it. Plus, be sure you include all of your photos, images, and videos in their original indexable and crawlable formats.

What about the structured data? Should we include it on both of our mobile and desktop versions? Yes. The URLs in the structured data on the mobile versions should be updated to the mobile URLs. If you use Data Highlighter for this be sure to check your dashboard regularly for any extraction errors.

How about the metadata? Do we need it on both versions? Definitely. Make sure that titles and meta descriptions are identical across both versions of your site.

Things that you should verify to meet Google’s new Mobile-First Indexing:

  • Verify both your mobile and desktop sites in Google’s Search Console. Now that Google has switched over to mobile-first indexing your sites may have experienced a data shift.
  • Make sure your mobile site’s hreflang points to the mobile URL and the desktop hreflang points to the desktop URL.
  • Make sure your website server has enough capacity for the potential increased crawl rate on your mobile version.
  • Use the robots.txt testing tool to be sure that the Googlebot can access your mobile version.
  • Be sure that your robots.txt directives work properly on both your mobile and desktop sites.
  • Ensure that you have the correct rel=canonical and rel=link elements between your mobile and desktop versions. However, Google says that you shouldn’t have to make changes to your canonical links because they will continue to use them as guides for users who search on either on desktop or mobile sites.
  • If you add structured data to your mobile site, don’t add a lot of markups that aren’t relevant to the information.

The Finer Details

  • To allow or block Google’s crawlers from accessing any of your content, be sure to specify Googlebot as the user-agent.
  • To block pages from Google, blocking the user-agent Googlebot will also block all Google’s other user-agents.
  • You can also get more fine-grained control, like having all of your pages show up in Google Search, but not the images in your personal directory. You can use robots.txt to disallow the user-agent Googlebot-image from crawling the files in your personal directory (while allowing Googlebot to crawl all files). Go here for more details on how to do this and for other examples.

Three important points to remember:

  1. If you only verified your desktop site in Search Console, you must do so for your mobile version as well.
  2.  If you only have a desktop site, Google will continue to index your desktop site but use the mobile agent to do so. This should be fine.
  3. If you are still in the process of constructing your mobile version, it’s better to keep using the functional desktop site rather than trusting an incomplete mobile version of the site until it’s ready to launch.

To Summarize:

Google’s ranking, indexing and crawling systems used to use desktop versions of a page’s content. Now, because this may cause problems for mobile searchers they’ll be using the mobile version of a page instead. Google will be showing the mobile version of pages in their Search results and Google cached pages. You should also expect to see increased crawl rates from the Smartphone Googlebot.

You don’t have to worry too much because Google will always present the URL that is most appropriate no matter if it’s a mobile or desktop URL. While their index will be built from mobile documents, they say they will continue to build a great search experience for all users, whether they come from mobile or desktop devices.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact us. Or you can always contact Google via their Webmaster Forum.

Let’s Play “Tech Truth Or Dare”!

Your cybersecurity practices shouldn’t be treated like a game of chance unless you are 300% certain you’re going to win. What can you do to make sure your business isn’t the ultimate loser?

Cyber Security

Is technology today the endless cycle of cat-and-mouse, with the bad guys always one step ahead? A quick search for “cybersecurity best practices” will yield millions of results, all with their ideas of what you can do – but does any of it make sense? Someone busy running a company faces a complex dichotomy: Being too busy running their company to worry about something that won’t directly generate revenue, but not giving enough time and attention to something that could directly impact revenue. Those are two very distinct and different thoughts, but still closely related.

Not only is cybersecurity a critical focus of business today, but it’s also the easiest way to fail. Cybercriminals – hackers – are usually one step ahead of us good guys, but that’s the “cat and mouse” game to them. We respond to cybersecurity breaches that make the news with preventive measures to avoid the same fate and do our best to have enough safeguards in place to protect every element we can.

Hackers seek a cybersecurity vulnerability to exploit to their advantage. Their reasons don’t matter – it’s the result that affects their victims. Why do we still have vulnerabilities when we know better?

Myth: Half of small businesses think they’re “too small” for a hacker to target.

Truth: Small businesses make easier targets for many reasons. They often don’t have the tech budgets that the Fortune 500 companies do in order to take every precautionary measure to avoid being hacked.

Smartphones are major targets of hackers now, given more than half of all web traffic is reported to take place via mobile devices. Smartphones don’t have the same level of protection, making them easy targets, and therefore easy points of entry to a cybersecurity vulnerability. Imagine pressing a thumbtack into a hairline fracture on a porcelain plate – this one weak spot has the potential for this singular action to shatter the plate into thousands of pieces. Now, imagine this plate is your proprietary data, and this thumbtack is a hacker. Can you see the potential damage?

Myth: Employees of small businesses know more about the company and are more invested in its success, therefore take the time to safeguard their actions.

Truth: The dedication of staff to their employer has nothing to do with cybersecurity.

Modern cybercriminals are targeting critical data: consumer information, accounts with intellectual property, financial information about both the company and consumers. Three out of every four small businesses have no formal cybersecurity policies or protocols in place for staff, nor training to discuss the latest threats and how to thwart them. Hackers know this – oh, yes, they know – and they also know the small business is less protected than those Fortune 500 companies. This is a lethal combination.

  • Nearly two-thirds of small businesses have yet to address security regarding mobile devices or enact formal policies for mobile device use as it pertains to professional operations.

Myth: Small businesses can bounce back faster after a breach.

Truth: Half of all small businesses don’t have a disaster preparedness plan in place for recovery should they be impacted by a cybersecurity threat, a “data breach”.

It’s reported that less than half of all small businesses back up their data weekly. Let that sink in. The data loss in the event of a hack could have catastrophic results for as many as half of all small businesses. In the event of a breach, companies of any size consider the data loss and downtime to have the greatest impact, followed by the revenue loss – but most of the time, the impact to a company’s reputation isn’t considered until already in clean-up mode.

If you’re ready to win at “Tech Truth or Dare”, here are the new rules of the game:

Do you know what needs to be protected?

What data do you store? How is your data stored? What protective measures and security protocols are in place? Where are the “holes”? This last question is the most important, and it’s a smart decision to hire an expert to help you with this one.

What formal policies need to be updated – or put in place?

Every business needs an official cybersecurity policy. This policy should also be updated annually, at the minimum. Formalizing a policy can make sure everyone that has access to your data follows the same procedures and the strongest safeguards are in place.

This should include:

  • Password protocols
    • Passwords should be unique, complex, and changed regularly
  • System updates
    • Check for the latest updates to all applications and security releases
  • Privacy settings
    • Verify that users have the most secure privacy settings on their desktop and laptop computers, and smartphones and mobile devices

What is your plan for how to handle a disaster?

Perhaps an extension of the previous question, but no less important is how to handle a hack or breach should one occur. You’ve taken all the necessary steps and precautions, but you still had a disaster – now what? Best practices include daily back-up of your critical resources – which you’ll need to identify – and then test the process to ensure it’s sufficient, just in case.

Talk to experts.

You are an authority in what you do, and your sales pitch to your customers focuses on your expertise. Why wouldn’t you hire experts to protect your business?

Is your training sufficient?

Make sure your staff is aware of the steps needed for Internet safety, email security, network threats, and how to detect and protect in the event of each. Equally important is what need to be done if something happens and they suspect a threat.

Prevent your business from becoming a victim of a hacker this year and win the game!

Make 2018 the year you have an ironclad cybersecurity program, for your home and your office!

You’re In The Path Of The Hurricane – Are You Ready?

Weather is unpredictable, and this is clear every time a meteorologist gets the forecast wrong! Do you have a contingency plan in place for your organization to be ready on a moment’s notice?

Hurricane Preparedness

Ah, the weather. The weather decides the fate of so much of what we do. Going to a backyard BBQ this weekend? There’s a good chance of rain, so you may want to check if it’s still scheduled. Heat wave coming? Better re-think that marathon and consider a movie marathon instead. Planning an outdoor wedding – maybe on the beach – in June? You probably want to have a backup plan in case of a hurricane!

But seriously, major storms happen. The reality is the projected path of a storm isn’t set and can shift at any time, putting any of us right in its path, whether a hurricane, a tornado, a nor’easter, flash flooding, or anything in between. With every inch of the globe susceptible to major storms, emergency preparedness is important.

Are you prepared?

Businesses along the coastal United States are aware that hurricane season is predictable. Every year from roughly May through the end of November, though the actual timing varies, it’s expected that a handful of hurricanes will impact life, and force us to consider everything from emergencies to contingencies.

  • Each year, an average number of 13 major storms, like hurricanes and tropical cyclones, impacts the North American coastal regions. Some storms, like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012, or more recently Hurricane Harvey in 2017, cause tens of billions of dollars in damage.

There are also storms that aren’t classified as major based on environmental impacts, but these still have the potential to impact daily life, especially with damage, power outages, and even temporary flooding. Some cities essentially shut down for days, or even weeks, after the winds calmed, the waters receded, and the sun shone again.

Insurance companies are quick to estimate damage regarding losses, including homes, cars, furniture, and personal items like clothing. Cities and utility companies can speak to the time estimated for restoring power to communities, and critical needs like clean drinking water and medical care. Organizations like the American Red Cross are quick to assist with food and clothing and personal care items like toothpaste and other hygiene help like mobile showers. The list goes on!

There is no “average cost per storm” because the number can’t be quantified. The cost of infrastructure damage is estimated for each instance, yes, but how can you determine the average impact of an occurrence with so many variables and so little that can be predicted?

If a storm or natural disaster affects the power grid, utility companies try to offer estimates until power is restored, yes, but the outage is felt with much deeper impact. Without power, a family loses lighting inside and out (from the bathroom overhead light to the streetlamps that offer guidance in the dark), but also the power to the refrigerator and stove for basic needs like meal preparation. From the commercial standpoint, a business losing power faces the same issues with the refrigerator in a break room, but much more critical items that may be impacted are digital elements like computer servers, email, and communication, as well as file access and data storage.

Even “low-tech” companies feel the crunch. Grocery stores that lose power have to dispose of all frozen and refrigerated items, representing thousands of dollars in revenue lost. When can power be restored? When can deliveries be made to replenish? When can petroleum stations resume fuel sales? When can families shop refill supplies for home? When can electronic payment transactions resume? Those “low-tech” companies are the same companies that supply resources to “high-tech” firms, like basic office supplies for daily operations. Everything is mutually reliant!

Preparedness is key. What can businesses do to protect themselves in case of a situation like this?

  • Know your risks.
    • Floods, lightning, hurricanes, tornados, extreme heat, tsunamis, landslides, fires and wildfires…a few of these may seem highly unlikely, but the more detailed your list is, the better prepared your business will be. Don’t wait until the flood waters are at your door, or a tornado watch has been issued, or a wildfire is encroaching and emergency services are banging on your door with evacuation orders and it’s too late!
  • Know your warning systems.
    • Local news and weather stations will be the most likely places to inform the immediate community, but these aren’t always the most accurate or reliable sources for information. A “weather radio” is a great investment, and preferably one by NOAA: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a nationwide network of radio stations that broadcast continuous weather information from your closest National Weather Service station. Think about this: hurricanes give notice, but tornados don’t!
  • Have a communication plan.
    • If your organization is more than just you, have a plan in place with multiple methods to contact each person so that everyone can be reached. Is everyone safe? Does everyone know what is needed and expected of them, and if the workforce needs to be completely distributed until the eye of the storm passes?
  • Have a backup plan.
    • While more and more brands are moving to the cloud for data and file storage if any files or records are stored on-site or at a location where storms or natural disasters may impact operations, have a backup plan in place. By this, we mean have a plan to back up your data with a plan in place to safeguard this data. This plan could potentially eliminate your brand’s downtime, which directly translates to minimizing loss of revenue and maintaining continuity of processes.
    • Whose responsibility is it for maintaining these back-ups and contingencies, and what methods are in place for data or access restoration?
  • Protect yourself.
    • What safeguards do you have in place for both physical and digital protection during times of extreme situations? Nobody enjoys spending time worrying about the safety of an office or if their network is secure. Now is the time to assess these safeguards and update to minimize your overall risk.

Storms and natural disasters are not the only dangers we face that require contingency plans.

  • Did you know that cybercriminals have attempted to gain control of major infrastructure elements in the United States, like the power grid, systems that control water supply, aviation communication and control, and more? These threats give no warning but require equal efforts on your part for safeguard measures. What can you do in situations like this? The same list above applies!

Don’t wait until cybercriminals, weather, or a natural disaster is looming; make a plan now to be prepared IF something should happen and stay ahead of the proverbial storm. Steps you take now may well be the difference between survival and suffocation. Your contingency plan may just save your professional life!

Hold on to Your Credit Cards… Alexa’s On a Shopping Spree!

I love my Alexa. I don’t know what I’d do without it. Last year I decided to set it up for voice shopping. That way, when I come home from work, I can start cooking dinner, get the kids going on their homework, and tell Alexa what I want to buy.

Alexa Shopping Spree

Evidently, other moms and dads are doing this too. Research shows that people are spending about $2 billion a year using voice shopping with their Echos and Alexas.

And, it’s predicted that this amount will increase rapidly over the next few years to a whopping $40 billion by 2022! According to the company that provided these statistics:

“Voice commerce represents the next major disruption in the retail industry, and just as e-commerce and mobile commerce changed the retail landscape, shopping through smart speakers promises to do the same…The speed with which consumers are adopting smart speakers will translate into a number of opportunities and even more challenges for traditional retailers and consumer products companies.”

It seems that Amazon is the preferred vendor with 85% of people choosing the products Amazon suggests. For those like me who purchase groceries online, 45% of online grocery orders are made through Amazon Fresh.

Here are some more interesting statistics:

  • Right now, only 13% of homes have one of these devices, but by 2022 this is supposed to grow to 55%.
  • Amazon Echo is the most used of any U.S. virtual assistant. Google Home is the next at 4%, followed by Microsoft’s Cortana at 2%.
  • Those of us who have an Amazon smart speaker spend 66% more on Amazon than other people do.
  • Amazon Alexa owners spend on average $1,700 a year at Amazon, while members of the Amazon Prime program spend around $1,300 a year at Amazon.

Well, what can I say? It’s so much easier to just speak into my Echo and tell Alexa to reorder what I did last week from Amazon Fresh. When I’m making dinner, I don’t have the time to sit down and type away on a keyboard. The Voice Purchasing function of Amazon’s Alexa and Echo is so convenient. I can order practically anything from Amazon without using my computer. It’s great!

It seems that the smart speaker market is still in its infancy (unlike my precious children), and it’s still not clear if the Google and Microsoft smart speakers will be able to catch up to Amazon in the future.

Speaking of children…

Because Amazon doesn’t ask me to confirm my purchases with a “yes,” I’ve found some items in my orders that I didn’t place – but that my “precious” children did! Sugary cereal, microwave popcorn, chips, cookies, etc. Boy, was I mad when I found out they did this. You can be sure these purchases will come out of their allowance!

When I complained to Amazon, they told me to increase the security on my Alexa. They said there are two ways I can secure the Echo speaker from the kids or others. I can disable the Voice Purchasing feature or simply create a four-digit PIN (a secret one of course!).

Here’s how to disable Voice Purchasing.

By disabling Voice Purchasing, you can still shop with your Alexa and add items to your cart. However, you’ll have complete your checkout from the Amazon website or app.

  • Sign on to amazon.com(or open the Alexa app on your iOS or Android device).
  • Go to Settings.
  • Select Voice Purchasing.
  • Toggle off the Purchase by voice to disable Voice Purchasing.

They also suggest the I use a confirmation code.

Doing this lets me keep Voice Purchasing enabled without allowing others to purchase things with my Amazon account. I have to speak my confirmation code aloud to complete my order. So, I make sure to do this when the kids or others aren’t around! 

  • Sign on to amazon.com(or open the Alexa app on your iOS or Android device).
  • Go to Settings.
  • Scroll down and choose Voice Purchasing.
  • If it isn’t enabled choose “Purchase by Voice” to enable it.
  • In the text field beside Require confirmation code, enter a (secret) four-digit PIN.
  • Save.

Why do I love my Alexa for shopping? Because it’s so convenient! If I’m running out of paper towels or toilet paper, rather than jotting this down on a shopping list, I just ask my Echo to tell Alexa to order what I did last month. They arrive at my house in just two days! No more going to the store, putting them in a cart, jamming them into my car, taking them out of my car, etc. (you get the idea). They magically appear on my doorstep with minimal effort on my part.

And, if I happen to order something that requires a return, I don’t have to pay for shipping. Come to think of it, I should have returned the kids’ chips, cereal, etc.!

If you haven’t shopped with Alexa, you should give it a try. I know, it can be a little scary the first time. But once you see how easy it is, you’ll be “hooked” like me.

Here’s how to set up Alexa for shopping.

First, you need to set up an Amazon Prime account, provide a U.S. shipping address, billing address and a U.S.-based payment method. Set your Amazon Prime account for 1-Click shopping.

Check the settings in your Alexa to make sure Voice Purchasing is enabled. You can go to Settings -> Voice Purchasing in the Alexa app, and enable it. You can also manage your 1-Click settings here and set a 4-digit PIN to make sure the kids don’t order stuff!

Now, you can order anything that’s Amazon Prime-eligible:

Order new products: If it’s something you’ve never ordered before, Alexa will suggest an “Amazon Choice” product that meets your description. If you’re not sure about what you want to buy, you can add it to your cart and cancel it right away if you change your mind.

Reordering: Alexa will look at your past orders, so if you ordered a particular brand of paper towels, you can easily reorder them with a “reorder _____” command. Alexa will ask you to confirm the order, and if you say yes, you’re all done.

Tracking: You can always track what you’ve ordered by asking Alexa. Just say, “Alexa, where’s my stuff?” She’ll let you know when your order will arrive.

So, you can see why I love my Alexa and why I can’t do without “her.” She’s my newest best friend!

IT Is Changing – IT Budgeting Is Too.

When was the last time you thought about technology and the role it plays in your business success? Strategic IT Budgeting and planning for the tactical use of technology resources will bolster your business efforts to establish a competitive advantage. Just as you develop and adjust your annual business plans, you should do the same when it comes to IT planning and budgeting.

IT Budget

Budgeting for IT Has Completely Changed

Technology is now a part of nearly everything you do, and it involves much more than computers. With the advent of artificial intelligent (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT), big data, business intelligence (BI) and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone systems, the line items for IT may take up quite a bit more space on your balance sheets than before.

With information technology changing so rapidly, it’s sometimes difficult for business owners to anticipate what they will need for optimal performance in years to come. In the past, it was easy to budget for technology. You simply purchased the number of computers and software programs you needed to handle the basics. Today information technology is central to most all of your business processes. What you choose and how you choose to use it can mean the difference between success and failure. But how do you anticipate what you’ll need tomorrow?

The Increasing Dependence on Information Technology

In today’s competitive environment, businesses must rely on technology in order to compete and survive in the marketplace. With computers, the Internet and the availability of more software applications, productivity has been increased for many. Technology helps employees become more efficient, quick, and precise.

Information can now be relayed instantaneously, coworkers can collaborate on projects in real time from wherever they are, and businesses now have the ability to more easily spread their services throughout the world. We can no longer function without our computers, laptops, tablets or phones. Even our smartphones have the capabilities and apps that allow us to run our business from anywhere we have cell service.

You can cut labor costs by using computers and software programs for payroll, project management, and accounting. Instead of budgeting for hours of labor, you now need to budget for computers and programs. In the long run, this is money-saver for businesses of any size.

IT Budgeting Must Be a Priority

With IT shifting from just another piece of equipment in the office to the core of business operations, you should designate it as a central part of your budget. This also means that you must assess and clearly define how IT aligns with your business objectives to decide what you’ll need for the coming year(s).

Proper IT budgeting will help you lay a foundation for success for the future. Using the right IT solutions can help you:

  • Accelerate your business growth.
  • Increase your operational effectiveness.
  • Ensure optimal productivity from your employees.
  • Overcome operational challenges.
  • Increase collaboration and communication.
  • Reinforce your efforts to win new business.

Your IT Budget Should Be a Key Component of Your Business Plan

  • Think big and in terms of the innovative measures you can employ to increase productivity, efficiency, mobility, collaboration, and communication.
  • Every department in your business should adopt this philosophy when considering what they need to improve operations and cut costs.
  • Consider the value IT solutions bring to your business. For example, Backup and Disaster Recovery solutions will pay for themselves many times over when compared to the cost of losing your critical data.
  • Include key players in your organization when planning your IT budget. Your purchasing department may have different goals and requirements than your sales or distribution teams. Ensure you consider all initiatives and how innovative technologies will help them succeed.
  • Remain open-minded. What worked for you in the past probably won’t be enough in the year(s) to come. Consider your business’s changing needs and how new technologies might align more closely with them.

Assess and Clarify Your Business Requirements Before You Begin

Before you start, you must determine what your business will face in the coming year(s).

Will you be:

  • Launching a product or service that requires a new fulfillment process?
  • Acquiring another company or participating in a merger?
  • Adding employees to your staff who will need additional hardware and software?
  • Processing and storing additional confidential, proprietary or personal data that needs protecting?
  • Moving to a larger office, or adding satellite offices in other locations?

Consider the Following Requirements When Budgeting for Technology

  • Industry and Government Regulations: Will you need additional resources for data backup, vulnerability assessments, penetration testing, HIPAA, FINRA, PCI/DSS compliance?
  • Cybersecurity: With all the new and evolving cyber threats will your current IT security solutions be enough? This is an ever-increasing need due to the growing cyber threat landscape. Will you need managed firewalls, antivirus solutions, security awareness training for your employees, mobile-device-management, remote 24/7 security monitoring, Security as a Service or other solutions to protect your IT infrastructure? Most businesses need these and more to ensure their data remains secure.
  • Productivity and Collaboration: Software as a Service (SaaS) applications like Microsoft Office 365 provide your business the capabilities a larger-sized business enjoys, with popular applications like Word, Excel, PowerPoint and much more packaged together in a subscription-based platform. Plus, you and your employees can access it from wherever you are on your smartphones, tablets, laptops, or desktops.
  • Communications: Many businesses are switching from desktop phones to VoIP systems. With VoIP business phones you and your employees can make and receive calls remotely via your smartphones, retrieve messages via voicemail-to-email, and stay connected even if power and Internet access go down.

Consider All the IT Components You’ll Require

Hardware – This is the backbone of your IT infrastructure – The actual technology equipment you need to run your business. Be sure to include installation costs and maintenance in your calculations for items like the following:

  • Workstations
  • Laptops
  • Tablets
  • Smartphones
  • Servers
  • Cabling
  • Firewalls
  • Routers
  • Switches
  • Business Phones
  • Warranties
  • Licenses
  • Renewals
  • Hardware Implementation

Software – These are the business applications you’ll need to run your business. Be sure to include licenses and support contracts for your on-premise solutions.

  • Business Software and Applications for your Workstations, Laptops, Tablets, and Smartphones
  • Server Software
  • Anti-Virus, Anti-Spam, Anti-Malware Software
  • Backup Software
  • Routine Software Implementation

Subscriptions – These are any costs associated with subscription-based services like cloud solutions. They include options like Workstation as a Service (WaaS), Software as a Service (SaaS), Security as a Service (SecaaS), Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS) and more.

Services & Support – This is the cost for services required to support all of your IT operations. It may encompass expenses for in-house IT employees, or contracts with a Managed Services Provider who will maintain all your IT infrastructure needs. Expenses may include:

  • Salaries and benefits for IT employees.
  • Monthly fees for an external IT provider (MSP).
  • Annual costs for vendors of owned software/hardware.
  • Outsourcing for selected services like monitoring, help desk, security services, data backup.
  • Data network expenses (Virtual Private Networks, Wide Area Network connections, Internet Service Providers, Broadband Connections).
  • Training for internal IT staff and industry certifications, Security Awareness Training for employees.

Project Costs – These are initiatives to transform or improve operations to support the growth of your business, and may include:

  • IT Consulting and Planning.
  • IT Project Implementation.
  • Additional software and/or hardware.

Identify the Gaps Between What You Have and What You Need

Now it’s time to compare your current IT capabilities with what’s needed to meet your business requirements for the upcoming year(s). Once you identify the gaps, you must align them with what your budget allows. You might not be able to purchase all of them. Make a list of the “must have” and another of the “would-like-to-have” technology assets. Go for what will give you the best return on your investment (ROI), and what you “must have” to keep your data secure and business running efficiently.

Implementing Your Solutions

Implementation planning is critical as it lays out the steps you’ll take to complete your IT Budget for the year. You should contract with an IT Managed Services Provider to help you acquire, install and deploy your new IT solutions. The best ones will offer a payment plan that allows you to pay for the services you need on a monthly basis. And, don’t choose just any company, or one according to their prices. Also, make sure they aren’t a “fix-it-and-go” company. You want an IT partner who will be with you 24/7. Ask your business associates for referrals, check the testimonials on the MSPs’ websites, and certainly interview more than one.

The following are some things to consider when selecting an IT provider.  

Can they provide for your IT needs?

Consider your current IT support needs and how these might change in the coming year. Also, consider how these needs will change beyond next year as your business grows. Make a detailed list of your IT service and support requirements and objectives to determine if the IT provider can meet, and even, surpass them.

Look for an IT company that’s located in nearby

This affects the speed at which the company can respond onsite when IT emergencies arise. They should have the ability to handle all of your concerns and provide solutions thoroughly and effectively.

Do they offer fixed-rate managed services solutions?

To keep your IT budget under control, look for an IT Managed Services Provider who provides fixed-rate, all-in-one IT services. This is the only way you can accurately budget for IT services in the coming year(s).

Choose an IT company that provides 24/7 support, as well as onsite and remote service

With around-the-clock service and support, you’ll always have the assistance you require when IT issues arise. Also, ask if they can remotely identify and block cyberattacks, and address IT problems before they cause downtime, breaches or data loss.

Are their service technicians certified, knowledgeable and experienced?

Visit the company’s website to assess the experience they have, how long they’ve been operating and what services they provide. Check the testimonials on their website and online reviews. Ask if you can contact some of their customers to ask their opinions about the service they receive.

Ensure you’ll receive the value you require from an IT MSP

The cheapest provider isn’t always the best. Before you sign a contract with an MSP, ensure it includes any and all contingencies that may arise and details about how services are priced and delivered. Your IT provider must also be capable of aligning technology services to meet your budgetary guidelines and ensure that you’ll receive maximum value from your IT investments.

Look for an IT company that offers training on software, hardware, and security

It’s essential that your staff is thoroughly trained on your systems and software, as well as Security Awareness Education to avoid being victimized by hackers. This will increase their confidence, capabilities, and productivity, and provide a first-line of defense against cyber threats.

Will they assign a dedicated account manager to your business?

This is a representative from the MSP who will act as your main point of contact. This person can get to know your business and your requirements in detail, to ensure you receive the exact service you need.

Do they provide monthly reports?

You must stay informed and aware of the performance of your IT assets. You’ve invested a lot in them, and you must be kept apprised regarding their capabilities and value. These monthly reports should highlight which solutions are performing well, and which ones need improvement.

Can your MSP act as your IT Consultant and Strategist?

You can greatly benefit from an IT Consultant who operates as an extension of your business. They can liaison with vendors and provide strategic technical advice to ensure your IT investments are providing what you need. They can assist with your IT budgeting and help you plan ahead and take advantage of the best prices.

IT Budgeting is an Ongoing Process

You shouldn’t think of IT budgeting as having a start and finish. It’s an ongoing process with a series of do’s and don’ts. No plan is 100% correct, and if you run into obstacles you should modify your budget. Budgets are often modified after they are prepared as we discover things we didn’t know before. You must find what works, what doesn’t and make adjustments along the way. Your IT budget will go through cycles as your business needs grow and change, and as the opportunity to take advantage of new, innovative technologies emerges.